'Hunters' Creator Defends Fictional Depictions of Holocaust Amid Criticism From the Auschwitz Memorial

Hunters creator/executive producer David Weil on Sunday defended his Amazon Prime series following criticism by the Auschwitz Memorial over its fictional depictions of the Holocaust.

The drama, which stars Al Pacino as a Holocaust survivor, follows a diverse band of Nazi hunters living in 1977 who have discovered that hundreds of high-ranking Nazi officials are living among us and conspiring to create a Fourth Reich in the U.S. The team of Hunters sets out on a bloody quest to bring the Nazis to justice and thwart their new genocidal plans.

Two days after the show premiered on Amazon, the Auschwitz Memorial tweeted that the show presented a fictional version of the Holocaust, which it called "dangerous." Specifically, it referred to a scene featuring a chess game featuring humans as chess pieces who are killed after a piece is taken.  

When someone asked about TV and films taking liberties with the facts, the account said that was "disrespectful and dangerous."

Asked if they offer "consultation services for film makers interested in accuracy," the account replied:

In his statement, Weil explained that his reasoning behind creating the fictional atrocity. He noted that his grandmother, Sara Weil, was a Holocaust survivor who had been held prisoner at Auschwitz. When he visited Auschwitz years ago, he was forever changed after seeing "vestiges of the nightmarish world she had survived."

"It was the moment consecrated in time and memory that I sought to make good on doing my part — however big or however small — to ensure the promise of 'Never Again,'" Weil said in his statement. I believed then — as I do now — that I had a responsibility as the grandson of Holocaust survivors to keep their stories alive."

He noted that the show is "inspired by true events. But it is not documentary. And it was never purported to be. In creating this series it was most important for me to consider what I believe to be the ultimate question and challenge of telling a story about the Holocaust: how do I do so without borrowing from a real person's specific life or experience?"

This is why, Weil said, he decided to give all of the prisoners and survivors in the show tattoos above the number 202,499, which was the highest-recorded number ever given to an Auschwitz prisoner.

"I didn't want one of our characters to have the number of a real victim or a real survivor, as I did not want to misrepresent a real person or borrow from a specific moment in an actual person's life," he said. "That was the responsibility that weighed on me every night and every morning for years, while writing, producing, editing this show. It is the thing I go to sleep thinking about and the thing I wake up working to honor."

Weil also addressed the chess scene.

"[T]his is a fictionalized event," he said. "Why did I feel this scene was important to script and place in series? To most powerfully counteract the revisionist narrative that whitewashes Nazi perpetration, by showcasing the most extreme — and representationally truthful — sadism and violence that the Nazis perpetrated against the Jews and other victims. And why did I feel the need to create a fictional event when there were so many real horrors that existed? After all, it is true that Nazis perpetrated widespread and extreme acts of sadism and torture — and even incidents of cruel 'games' — against their victims. I simply did not want to depict those specific, real acts of trauma."

Weil argued that filmmakers and TV creators should continue telling narrative stories about the Holocaust.

"Hunters, like a myriad of acclaimed films on the subject, does not always adhere to literal truth in its pursuit of capturing the representational truth of the Holocaust," he said. "My decision to fictionalize was made in awareness of this debate, and this show takes the point of view that symbolic representations provide individuals access to an emotional and symbolic reality that allows us to better understand the experiences of the Shoah and provide it with meaning that can address our urgent present."

Weil also expressed his gratitude to the the Auschwitz Memorial "for all of the important and vital work that they do, for keeping the memory of victims and survivors like my grandmother, Sara Weil, alive."

In his review of the show, The Hollywood Reporter's Daniel Fienberg called Hunters "less a straightforward chronicle of Nazi-hunting and more a flashy slice of Jewsploitation."

He wrote: "The show's treatment of Nazis and the Holocaust is another of the places I felt reservations. Auschwitz and Buchenwald are featured flashback locations and a decision has been made to feature atrocities, but fictional atrocities. So many horrifying and specifically inhuman real things were done to people in the Holocaust that it's a strange choice to create new ones. It doesn't divorce the Holocaust from reality and it doesn't trivialize it, but it certainly sensationalizes aspects of it in ways that left me feeling uncomfortable."

Last week, Weil sat down with Fienberg and THR's Lesley Goldberg for an episode of the podcast TV's Top 5 for a deep-dive interview in which he discussed how the 1970s-set series will confront today's rising tide of anti-Semitism, what he hopes viewers take away from the show and just how much they should be unnerved by it.